State delays high-tech passport requirement

Faced with a massive logistics problem, the State Department may postpone the deadline for requiring 26 industrialized nations to issue machine-readable passports for their citizens traveling to the United States.

The machine-readable documents, mandated by the USA Patriot Act, would allow countries whose citizens are allowed into the United States for 90 days without a visa to enter the country as long as they have a valid passport that could be screened upon entry.

The increased automation would cut entry time and give border agents a chance to compare the passports with a database containing information on potential terrorists and other criminals. Congress originally set the deadline for 2007, but moved it up to Oct. 1 after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Federal officials will grant countries a one-time extension that would give them until Oct. 26, 2004. State is taking the step because some nations have not been able to completely upgrade their passports by the Oct. 1 deadline, even though most of them are now issuing passports with a space on the side for computer codes, much like bar codes.

"Any country requesting this postponement must also certify that it's making progress toward ensuring that machine-readable passports are available to its nationals, and that it has taken appropriate measures to protect against misuse of nonmachine readable passports," said State spokesman Richard Boucher Sept. 8.

Members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded the department's action, saying it would give countries the time they need, not only to meet the machine-readable requirement, but also the deadline for embedding chips in passports with facial recognition or fingerprint data.

"This decision widely recognizes that reality by not forcing an unrealistic timetable for passport requirements that would cause chaos at our ports of entry," said Randel Johnson, a chamber vice president.

But machine-readable passports are only one part of a strategy to control access to the United States and screen noncitizens at land, sea and air points of entry. About 100 countries face another deadline Oct. 26, 2004, to introduce biometric identifiers in their passports.

Jack Dillon, senior vice president for government solutions at Viisage Technology Inc., which provides secure digital identification systems, said many countries have not complied with the machine-readable requirement because it costs money to add the components to the documents.

Biometrics will not be available immediately on the many passports that will not expire for nearly a decade after the 2004 deadline, Dillon said, and this likely will add to the cost of obtaining the document.

"It's going to take 10 to 12 years before you have biometrics on everyone's passports," he said. "It's a short-term start and a long-term implementation."

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